The L.A. Syndrome Strikes Again

The U.S. Constitution, the governing document of the most powerful country in the history of the world, can be printed readably in a book not much bigger than your fancy new Razor phone. The Los Angeles City Charter can be printed readably in a book you could fit in the trunk of your car as long as you didn't have too much other stuff in there. To figure out who does what is a matter for arcane speculation — and usually requires an expensive lobbyist.

villaraigosa.jpgBut that's the L.A. syndrome. Real accountability is to be avoided. We share power because everyone wants a share of the power. We diffuse power because that creates more fiefdoms, more trolls at the bridge to collect tribute, and more places to point fingers.

I was shocked that Antonio Villaraigosa was willing to take on the teacher's unions and the educational bureaucracy by telling voters during last year's mayoral election he would work to get the massive Los Angeles Unified School District under his control. The idea didn't seem typical of Villaraigosa, because — like most elected Democrats in California — he obeys the unions, and the unions enjoy a big slice of the power to run LAUSD.

Giving the mayor control of the schools sounded like an idea that a poll-taker brought to Villaraigosa as a magic bullet to win his campaign for mayor. But that's why we have elections. It's the one time when those in power have to address what's really on our minds, rather than what benefits them.

After Villaraigosa took office, his first step was in a reverse direction. He seemed to want to lower expectations, and find a way to redefine the status quo as reform. This was what cynics expected. But then the mayor surprised me, and shifted back into forward gear. He seemed genuinely committed to making a major change.

I envisioned a titanic struggle that would consume most of Villaraigosa's first term, because the interests favoring the status quo, or worse, at LAUSD are not trifling. I figured the mayor would have to hold hearings all over the city to document the failure of the current system of education governance. He would probably put a respected education expert on his City Hall staff, create a powerful coalition of stakeholders that would include business leaders, community leaders, civil rights leaders, parents, and use his considerable charisma and PR skills to unite the city behind him for this 15-round fight with the entrenched special interests who control LAUSD.

But no. The mayor wanted something approved this year. A consummate Sacramento player, Villaraigosa looked at the the reform process as just another legislative deal. And so that's what we've got. Not reform. Not accountability. Just more diffusion of power in a hasty compromise that looked good in a windowless conference room in the state capitol building, but will be hellish in practice. The Los Angeles Times' editorial today is eloquent in describing the mess the mayor and his negotiating partners have created:

Under the proposed bill, details of which are not yet public, the school board would be in charge of student achievement — or at least parts of it — while the mayor would control about three dozen poorly performing schools. Both would have a role in hiring the superintendent. Schools would be in charge of their curriculums. Instead of creating a clean line of accountability — the chief advantage of having a mayor run the schools — this deal divides responsibility so confusingly that even the main players would have trouble figuring out who's in charge of what.

The school board would be a "broad policymaking body," the mayor says, "not a management body." Yet decisions about curriculum would be made at the local school level. The superintendent, meanwhile, would be charged with carrying out the policy set by the board — but he or she could be fired by the mayor. The superintendent would have power to sign contracts — except the biggest contract, with the teachers union, which would be negotiated by the board.

Most schools would be under the authority of the elected board, but a few dozen would be essentially run by the mayor. The mayor says that if these schools improve, the Legislature may be more willing to give a future mayor more direct control. Maybe so. But the rest of the plan would so damage the district that this experiment hardly seems worth it.

"Fragmentation is failing our kids," the mayor explained in his State of the City address in April. "Voters need to be able to hire and fire one person accountable to parents, teachers and taxpayers. A leader who is ultimately responsible for systemwide performance." Under this plan, fragmentation is increased, accountability diminished. Who's in charge of the schools? Any answer that requires more than one subject and one verb is no answer at all.

Bob Sipchen and Janine Kahn's LA Times-sponsored education blog, School Me, has an even pithier take on some of the plan's details:

It's good that teachers will gain more control over cirriculum–unless the bad ones protected by union aversion to firing use their freedom to dodge responsibility. And who's going to step in? The board? LA's mayor? Superintendent-in-waiting Jackie Goldberg?

Another thing: The mayor wants responsibility for shaping up three "failing" schools. If that means yanking good teachers from good schools, what will parents whose kids get the lemons say? And to whom do they complain? The mayor of South Gate?

But that's how it goes in L.A. Who's in charge of air pollution? Who's in charge of economic development? Who's in charge of transportation? Who's in charge of airports? Who's in charge of energy? Who's in charge of public safety? Who will respond if Avian Bird Flu becomes a crisis? Answer: Everyone and no one.

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